19 January 2010

The Democrats' Mythical Supermajority

Massachusetts holds an election today to fill the late Ted Kennedy's position. The media are breathlessly reminding us how important this election is, as a Republican victory will kill the Democrats' "filibuster-proof" majority in the Senate. The media, as usual, are missing the real story.

At this point it may be difficult to remember the Democrats’ glee at gaining supermajorities in both the House and Senate. The House is a majority dominated institution, so having 59% of the seats there meant the Democrats could confidently allow a few defections and still steamroll a unified opposition. And with 60 being the magic number for imposing cloture and ending a filibuster in the Senate, all eyes were on the disputed Minnesota Senate race, which would determine whether the Democrats reached that paradisiacal plateau. And, oh, the joy when Al “Saturday Night Live” Franken was declared the victor. But now it is all coming to little, despite Republican’s alligator tears about the alleged onslaught of enslaving legislation being passed by Congress.

Some Democrats I know were looking back to the great civil rights and “Great Society” victories of the Lyndon Johnson administration as proof of what great things a Democratic president united with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress can accomplish. In the 88th Congress, when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, the Democrats controlled 59% of the seats (they had 259 then, to 257 now). In the next Congress, when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, they had 295 seats—67%! * The Democrats’ Senate advantage was even greater: in the 88th Congress they controlled 66 seats, which increased to 68 seats after the ’64 election.** Clearly they were an unstoppable machine, and their strength seems to lend support to my one friend’s claim that the Dems need to rebuild their old New Deal coalition if they want to dominate once again.

But such a simplistic analysis overlook too much. Primarily it overlooks the fact that the South back then was still almost solidly Democratic, but very right wing. Strom Thurmond, one of the first major Southern politician to switch parties, only jumped to the Republicans in ’64. This dominance of the South by conservative Democrats—the infamous boll weevils—explains why the Voting Rights act received a larger share of the Republican vote in Congress than it did of the Democratic vote. 63% of Democrats voted for it, while 80% of Republicans did. Among Southern Democrats the vote was only for and 87 against—93% opposition. (The handful of Southern Republicans were even worse—10-0 against.) In contrast, 94% of Northern Democrats and 85% of Northern Republicans voted for it.***

The only way the Democrats could rebuild the New Deal coalition is to bring southern conservatives back into the party—something they have neither any chance nor any desire of doing.

But that helps us recognize the main problem in their push for a congressional supermajority, which is that they can only achieve it with the help of conservatives. The public has not made a major swing to the left, so the gains made by the Democrats were seats picked up either by more conservative party members or lucky liberals in conservative districts who can only hope to hold onto their seats by not straying too far from their constituency’s base beliefs. In other words, they party is hamstrung by the very members who swell their numbers to “unstoppable” status.

The only way the Democrats in the House can use their supermajority is to compromise to the point where their members representing conservative districts can safely come on board. And in the Senate it is even worse, as a single member can drop his drawers and make the whole party leadership kiss his naked ass to get his vote. Dare I say the Democrats might be better off without Al Franken’s seat? Because then they would not have the false hope of control, and would—paradoxically perhaps—have greater liberty to ignore Joe Lieberman.

Little evidence is needed beyond what looks to be the final shape of the health care bill. There’s not a liberal Democrat alive who—1 year ago—said, “I think it would be a great victory if we passed a bill requiring every American to buy health insurance,” but that’s what they’re reduced to now.

And by focusing on getting their whole party in line, the Democrats have opened themselves up to the charge that they’re just pushing through legislation on their own—high-handedly ignoring any interest in compromising with the other side. This is, of course, a stupid charge. No majority party has any duty to consult the minority, and of course the Republicans would do no different were they in the Democrats’ position.*** But even a stupid criticism can be effective, particularly when a crucial number of the votes that propelled the Democrats to their supermajority status came from solidly middle-of-the-road voters and even some who are more likely—as a general tendency—to vote Republican. Remember that all politics is local, so in normally Republican districts in which Democrats won (like mine), the swing voters that tipped the balance were voting for and against particular people or particular policies; they were not voting for wholesale Democratic dominance.

In his excellent short book Learning to Govern: An Institutional View of the 104th Congress, political scientist Richard Fenno writes about the difficulty of “electoral interpretation,” determining what your party’s electoral victory actually meant, which determines what kind of leash the public is holding you on.

The period following an election is a critical time for every victorious political party. It is the time during which the winners decide for themselves what their victory meant and how it will shape their future activity. It is for them to interpret the election results; and it is their electoral interpretation that becomes the essential link between the business of campaigning and the business of governing. Everything that follows in the new Congress will be affected by the postelection interpretation of the winners. (p.5)

Fenno’s argument is that the Republicans in the House blew it after the 1994 election, interpreting a referendum on Clinton as a mandate for policy revolution. It’s tempting to say that Democrats have repeated this same mistake—turning a referendum on Bush into a mandate for major policy change. But I think the reality is different. I think the Democrats made little effort at electoral interpretation. Focusing solely on numbers, they determined that this was, at long last, their chance to achieve the health care reform that has eluded them for half a century. Given the nature of American politics, if they could just once get it in place, it would probably be stuck in place for good, despite Republican claims of creeping (or galloping) socialism, just like Social Security. But in ignoring electoral interpretation they may have misjudged the public’s stomach for a government takeover of a major economic sector—what might have seemed normal in the 1950s seems quite abnormal now. And in counting the numbers they may have forgotten to look at the voters behind those numbers. In short, they have something of a mythical majority, or at least a mythical supermajority.

It’s a lesson all political observers ought to learn. But undoubtedly, neither the pundits nor the politicians will.

* All House numbers are from http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/house_history/partyDiv.html.

** http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/history/one_item_and_teasers/partydiv.htm.

***This is what makes claims, such as this one, claiming the Republicans should be credited with passing the Civil Rights Act, basically false. The only identifiable group in opposition were Southern conservatives, who today form the base of the Republican Party.

***I cannot pretend that the Democrats never engage in hypocrisy themselves, but it seems to me that the Republicans have an unequaled propensity for whining when their opponents do precisely what they themselves would do.

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